Can India rise as a superpower amid rivalry with Pakistan and China?

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

On 21 SEPTEMBER 2011, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who was en route to the 66th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) said “The United Nations must be seen as an impartial, credible and effective body. I will stress the need for early reform of this unique organisation, particularly an expansion of its Security Council.” The same sentiment was echoed by the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 26, 2020. “Today, people of India are concerned whether this reform-process will ever reach its logical conclusion. For how long will India be kept out of the decision-making structures of the United Nations?” he asked.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) permanent membership is generally regarded as being one of the key parameters for being a great power in the modern world. India has been long seeking a permanent berth in the Security Council. But are we ready for it?

It has been a few months the Chinese have occupied 1000 sq km of our territory in Ladakh. Since then we have amassed a sizable force, occupied some of the heights on our own side fearing the Chinese will do that and majority in the country is fixated on the latest foreign origin arms India has deployed on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Going by the tweets of the Kashmir based Chinar Corps, Pakistan is shelling across the Line of Control (LOC) nearly every day. Would the political leadership of the P-5 countries allow similar situation happen to their countries, especially occupying the land or shelling across the border? 

“You can’t choose your neighbours. Unfortunately, India has vitriolic ones in China and Pakistan. China has expansionist policies aimed at containing India within the South Asian landscape whereas Pakistan resorting to cross border terrorism as a state policy serves the same end. The two of them together is a toxic combination that needs to be contended by finding alignments and congruences across geographies,” says former Ambassador Anil Trigunayat.”

The Pakistan Trap

One of the major hurdles to India attaining a seat on the UN’s high table is Pakistan. Pakistan is perennially on the border of being a failed state but for its diplomatic, intelligence and military muscle. Pakistan is adept in both diplomacy and bomb blast diplomacy (unconventional war) even though it is incapable of winning a full-scale conventional war with any of its neighbours. As much we Indian’s would like to refute, Pakistan has been a spoke in the rise of India at the world stage. The Indian diplomatic clout has not been able to effectively tackle Pakistan in the world or even in the regional context. Even today, India is trading barbs and indulges in verbal one-upmanship than any meaningful gains against Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive. Pakistan is part of the group which opposes the permanent membership of India in the UN Security Council. The United States (US) support to Pakistan is now effectively replaced by China. The only hope seems to be Pakistan eventually succumbing to its failed state status.

India just has to wait for some more time till Pakistan fails owing to their own internal issues says former Submariner Commodore Arun Kumar (Retd). “We have an intractable problem with Pakistan. It is not Kashmir but basically the two-nation theory. If we were to hand over Kashmir to them tomorrow, next will be Punjab, Haryana and finally New Delhi. It is in the interest of the Pakistani Army whose motto is jihad for Islam, to keep the Kashmir issue boiling. It justifies their ‘raison d’être’ if the Kashmir issue were to be resolved, why would Pak Army need nearly 30% of its national budget. If the fauj there were to lose its pre-eminence, the economy which is virtually controlled by the Fauji Foundation then their Generals will not become billionaires in rupee terms. We have to persevere and strangle Pakistan economically, which the present Government in India is doing very well. Secondly, we have to isolate Pakistan diplomatically, which is also being done. Thirdly, we need to exploit the fissures in the structure of Pakistan. It is not a natural nation which is an artificial construct with no cultural bonding among its constituents. Islam can never be the glue to keep it together,” says Cmde Arun Kumar (Retd).

Can India compete with China?

China is now considered the second superpower after the US. India’s rise means competition and rivalry with its neighbour China in economic, military and cultural spheres. It is widely perceived that China excels in economic, cultural, military and diplomatic engagements and rivals the US in most spheres. But Indian commentators believe that China may not be as effective in the future.

The key reason for the above argument is that China’s mishandling of the coronavirus, unilateral actions on the border with India, the hegemonistic attitude in the South China Sea and its economic coercion of Australia have resulted in hardening of threat perceptions of China in the region and uniting them to explicitly forge alliances against Beijing.  

“China has discredited itself by deceit and double standards as well as its aggression and wolf warrior diplomacy. At the same time, India has created much greater credibility and trust in the international landscape. But we shall have to develop our economic strength to meet our strategic objectives as a benign yet dependable power. We need not play the games a China or the US does. We need to be ourselves and believe and deliver on “Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam” by relying on honest soft power backed by credible hard power.

“We often hear that the world is facing the Cold war 2.0 between the US and China. It may as well look like that but the extensive economic engagement and dependency on global value and supply chains do not exactly fit the bill. Hence the competition between the superpowers of today will be more on technology and economic domain than only military-industrial superiority” says Amb Anil Trigunayat.

A lot of Indian and international commentators believe that China’s political, social and economic fault lines will limit its prospects for sustaining high growth through the coming decade.

“China, I disagree that is on top in Asia. There too there is a major fault line between the prosperous coastal zone and the poor hinterland. This is a serious issue of internal conflict. So far, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has used brute force to suppress the hinterland but it cannot sustain. Secondly, it is a single-party dictatorship. These do not have a history of long-term survival. Thirdly, to its East, North East and the North it has serious security issues with all, barring North Korea, the rim countries of the South China Sea (SCS) and the Pacific. Thirdly, it stands isolated in the world, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. All three are major factors which will destabilise China. Its economy has started to suffer from MNCs pulling out. Xi Jinping is beginning a nationalisation of companies.

“In the short term, we have to manage and hold the situation which is being done. In the longer term, we need to continue our economic growth. Napoleon said let the tiger remain asleep. Nixon and Kissinger stirred him awake. The tiger grew strong but a bit more than it could chew. Time for it to lay back and digest what it has consumed” says Cmde Arun Kumar (Retd).

India doesn’t exhibit a cohesive strategy to deal with China. The two visible Indian policies for containing China include joining the informal Quad (US, Japan, India and Australia) and exclusion of Chinese companies from India.

What is the way forward for India?

There is no sign of any thaw visible with Pakistan and China in the future and India will have to grapple with the competition and conflict arising out of it. India will have to cultivate its relations with the rest of the world and evolve its power dynamics.

It is about the bigger objective says former Ambassador Anil Trigunayat. “India’s Neighbourhood First policy as well as Act East and Act West policies have provided it with the requisite heft in the broader Asian region. But these have to be advanced in a more holistic and focused manner with collaboration in cyber and common security including maritime, defence and strategic matrix apart from greater trade and mutual investments as a counter to the nefarious designs by some. Convergences need to be explored and developed with like-minded countries in Europe and with old friends like Russia while deepening ties with USA and Israel. As new power dynamic is evolving especially in the Middle East, we ought to find the right charge and depth with the countries aligning with our interests and security. India will also have to emerge as a security provider and guarantor of sorts as it is trusted a great deal by many countries across continents. For that to happen it is important to dispense with the hesitation and counting of small costs. We should not lose sight of the bigger objective,” says Amb Anil Trigunayat

Does the world view India as a superpower?

There are no agreed definitions of the words Super Power, Great Power, Emerging Power and Regional Power. It generally refers to the ability of a country to project power in terms of economy, technology, military and culture. As per a 2014 report by Hague Centre for Strategic Studies “(Great Powers) are disproportionately engaged in alliances and wars, and their diplomatic weight is often cemented by their strong role in international institutions and forums. This unequal distribution of power and prestige leads to “a set of rights and rules governing interactions among states” that sees incumbent powers competing to maintain the status quo and keep their global influence. In today’s international system, there are four great powers that fit this definition: The United States (US), Russia, China and the European Union (whereby the EU is considered to be the sum of its parts).”

 India’s stature as a world power was acknowledged around two decades ago. Strategic thinkers like Zbigniew Brzezinski, David A. Robinson and J Mohan malik consider India as a Great Power. India is referred to as an emerging power by Peter Howard and Stephen P. Cohen. The UBS Investor Sentiment Global 4th Quarter 2019 states that 57% of the respondents see China overtaking the US as a superpower by 2030 and India doesn’t find the mention in it.  Another UBS Insight published on 15 July 2020 states that India is the only country with the scale to match China, but it will not be the next China.


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